- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004


By Marlene Van Niekerk

Translated by Leon De Kock

The Overlook Press, $25.95, 528 pages


As William Faulkner memorably reminded us, not all white Southerners were high-liv-

ing gentry, quaffing mint juleps on their plantation porches. Now in a timely and accomplished novel, a South African writer introduces the Benade family, who belong to South Africa’s long-ignored class — landless, uneducated and poor whites who were cynically used by the former regime to do apartheid’s dirty work as policemen, soldiers, and low-level public servants.

The liberal, wealthy protagonists of Nadine Gordimer’s novels live in the best Johannesburg suburbs. By contrast, the Benades live in crumbling government housing in Triomf (“Triumph” in Afrikaans).

Triomf, whose construction reflected the triumphalist aspirations of the apartheid regime, was built on the site of what was once Sophiatown, the legendary African township. Sophiatown was pulled down and its black residents forcibly relocated to the newly built Soweto.

Miss Van Niekerk is well aware of the irony of the town’s name, and uses it to good, but not obvious effect, as she chronicles a seminal year in both the life of South Africa as it prepares for the first multi-racial elections to be held in April 1994, and the life of the Benade family as they prepare for son Lambert’s 40th birthday that same month.

The upcoming election plays an important role in the narrative, as visits from Nationalist Party canvassers evoke bitter memories of the family’s past and skepticism about the future. Like many whites, the Benades are apprehensive about coming events and have evolved the “great north plan for when the emergency comes.” Lambert is to dig a cellar in which they can stockpile gasoline for their journey out of South Africa.

There are four Benades: three middle-aged siblings, Pop, Mol and Treppie; and son Lambert. Pop and Mol live as husband and wife, and Lambert, not knowing that Pop is really his uncle, supposes that he is a distant cousin.

The family’s attitude to incest is pragmatic, though embarrassed. In the siblings’ impoverished and lonely childhood it was a source of comfort, which Mol has occasionally extended to Lambert to calm him down. It is also a metaphor for the racial exclusivity of apartheid, which kept everything — including sex — in the family, as it were, by banning interracial marriage.

Their language is crude, their behavior coarse, and they drink too much, but the Benades are also a spirited lot, quick to spot cant, and practical enough to accept change when it comes. “The ANC party after the election looked a lot more jolly. At least they sang and danced, even old Mandela,” Mol observed. Unlike the uptight university-educated supporters of the Nationalist Party, who come round with their pamphlets as the election nears and talk about “preserving the higher things … our language and our culture.”

The Nationalists are not fighting for such basics as food and jobs. They don’t care that the Benades’ grandfather lost his land in the Depression, or that their mother died from TB, and their “father hanged himself by the neck in a Railways truck. They knew nothing at all about the meaning of misery.”

At the heart of this remarkable novel is a quiet but stunning indictment of the government that corrupted the whites, especially the Afrikaners, as it tried to keep South Africa in white hands. Miss Van Niekerk captures exactly the speech and thinking of a class so marginalized that it is free to live outside society (which it does) and yet close enough to observe that society with mordant acuity. Forgotten and ignored, the Benades — like a psychic thorn in the flesh — are free to speak truth to power both black and white.

They have promised the learning-disabled Lambert, who suffers from seizures and mood swings, a woman for his birthday. Lambert, a pathetic figure conscious of not being truly normal, tries to transform his dank room into a love nest by adding a bar and refrigerator, and painting a mural on the wall. But nothing ever goes as planned: From selling flowers at a patriotic festival to teaching Lambert how to repair appliances, even to setting up a mailbox — all the Benades’ ventures go dramatically awry. And Lambert’s plans are equally doomed.

But as they individually recall the past and think of their fears for the future, there are consoling memories and moments: a peaceful family picnic at a dam with Mol’s much-loved dogs; an evening watching the lights of Johannesburg from a hilltop in their beaten-up car. The Benades are down, but not quite out, as a sudden and violent death threatens their closeness. However, the new South Africa may not be as bad as they’d thought, and they face the future with guarded hope.

This is one of those rare novels that don’t preach, that relish words for their own sake, and evoke society’s forgotten and ignored with clear-eyed sympathy. A moving and memorable achievement.

Judith Chettle is a South Africa-born writer now living permanently in the United States. She reviews frequently for The Washington Times.

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